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How do I Choose the Best Anti-Inflammatory Cream?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Creams that contain medication, such as steroids, analgesics, and antihistamines, are designed for specific topical use and may have some advantages over oral medication. Anti-inflammatory creams may be used to reduce inflammation of the skin and underlying joints and muscles. There are essentially two types of anti-inflammatory medications — steroidal and non-steroidal. The majority of these creams sold over the counter in the United States contain hydrocortisone. The US Food and Drug Administration approved Voltaren®, the first non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream available by prescription, in 2007. Although doctors do prescribe topical medication, choosing an OTC cream leaves little choice aside from comparing brand, price and inactive ingredients.

Topical medication may be indicated for treatment of acute skin problems, such as dermatitis, and localized muscle or joint pain. By sheer design, topical medications are absorbed through the skin and bypass the stomach entirely. This can be a benefit for people who already take large amounts of oral medication, have difficulty taking pills, or have sensitive stomachs. It is important to note that for chronic skin conditions and chronic or widespread pain, anti-inflammatory cream has little or no effect.

Anti-inflammatory cream may be useful for temporary relief of joint or muscle inflammation caused by a minor injury, skin rash, sunburn, or other acute condition. While a doctor may recommend prescription cream for treatment of specific conditions, many people simply elect to use an over-the-counter cream for treatment of simple conditions. When choosing an anti-inflammatory cream, compare the active ingredients as well as inactive ingredients. Though not especially common, some people experience an allergic reaction to sorbitol, an emulsifier commonly found in many creams and personal hygiene products. If you have especially sensitive skin, you may want to consult a doctor before using any topical medication.

It is important to note that there is a difference between anti-inflammatory creams and pain relieving creams. Most pain relieving creams contain a topical analgesic that essentially helps disrupt transmission of pain signals to the brain, providing temporary relief from pain. Topical pain relievers do not contain any medication that reduces swelling or inflammation. Some conditions, such as minor sports injuries or arthritis flare-ups may benefit from the use of both types. If you have never used topical medications or are unsure which type you need, you should consult a doctor or pharmacist before use. Do not use anti-inflammatory steroid cream on infants or young children without first checking with your pediatrician.

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Discussion Comments
By anon998451 — On Jun 13, 2017

I'm the same. Some of these creams are good, but the smell. Even the prescription creams have scents in them. Haha, that reminds me of a show I once saw where a young guy's friend is wooing an elderly woman because he thinks the friend is dating her (obviously a misunderstanding and it was actually her daughter) and he wants to get her away from him. So he snuggles up to the elderly woman and says "What a wonderful aroma, what is that perfume?" The old woman is bewildered at his attentions and replies "Ben Gay."

By anon996269 — On Aug 03, 2016

I use Vick's as it has menthol, eucalyptus and camphor which relieves both inflammation and pain. I am severely allergic to mosquito and ant bites, so this helps a lot. I need to use elastic bandages though to compress and stop my from scratching and making things worse. I am told that tea tree oil helps too.

By anon308437 — On Dec 10, 2012

What is the difference between hydrocortisone and cortisone cream?

By StarJo — On Aug 17, 2012

My husband is particularly allergic to poison ivy. He works outdoors, and it seems that he is always finding patches of it. Unfortunately, he usually doesn't see it until he is in it.

His doctor always gives him some prescription cortisone cream. It's a steroid cream, and it works so well at relieving itching and making the rash fade away.

He has to take oral steroids in conjunction with the cream. When he is using both, his rash will disappear in about a week.

By cloudel — On Aug 16, 2012

@Oceana – Did you know that hydrocortisone cream also works great for relieving itching from bug bites? I use it on mosquito bites and ant bites, and I don't feel the need to scratch them as much.

The less I scratch, the less the area swells and turns red. So, this cream works both as an anti-inflammatory and a scratch deterrent.

I never use it over large areas of my body, though. I've heard that if you put it all over your skin, then your body can absorb too much of it and you can have terrible side effects.

By Oceana — On Aug 16, 2012

Hydrocortisone is the topical anti-inflammatory cream that I use most. While it works to soothe inflammation, it cuts down on redness.

I have put it on my acne before. I have a bad habit of squeezing my pimples, which makes them swell and turn even more red. If I apply the cream to them afterward, both the redness and swelling go down in half an hour or so.

It also works great on rashes. I break out in little red bumps if my skin rubs against hay or grass, but the cream gets rid of the bumps within minutes.

By healthy4life — On Aug 15, 2012

My mother uses a topical cream for arthritis treatment. She says that it works to cut down on the inflammation in her joints, and it also helps with the pain.

I can always tell when she has used it, because the entire room will smell like peppermint. It is overpowering, and I probably would never use the cream because of this.

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